Last rainy season, after a few days touring the temples of Ankgor, I decided to visit the former French capital of northwestern Cambodia – Battambang.
My guidebook explained that traveling to Battambang by speedboat was the best option because of the treacherous road conditions. So I paid about half of Cambodia’s average monthly wage for a “special-for-foreigner three-hour luxury speedboat ride.”
The next morning I arrived at the dock to be greeted by an army of hotel touts offering “best discount room” in Battambang. One of them showed me to a rough-hewn vessel that bore no resemblance to the speedboat pictured on my ticket.
In fact, this boat’s primary function was moving bananas, tires, tin sheeting and chickens over short distances. Most of my fellow passengers and I were curious about this development, but one seasoned traveler explained: “This is the transport boat to take us to the speedboat moored in deeper water.”
About this time our crew boarded and untied us, cranked up the engine and eased us off the muddy bank.
The seasoned traveler’s prophecy appeared to be true when a speedboat appeared in front of us and began chugging toward open water. We thought it strange, though, when the speedboat immediately gained 300 yards on us, and stranger still when she accelerated as she passed the last pier in the harbor. But when our own Cambodian Queen also passed the last pier and the crew revved her up from idle to really slow, we knew it would be a long day.
Our vessel, which we could have bought for the fares we’d paid to ride it, was about 30 feet long and 5 feet wide at the beam. The engine’s ability to generate noise was inversely related to its ability to generate speed.
The boat’s plywood roof transformed the monsoon deluges we encountered into steady dripping leaks. We sat on antique wicker armchairs adorned with cushions a rescue dog would have scorned. Since the chairs weren’t fastened to the deck, they capsized whenever we turned.
Two men and a teenaged boy crewed her. One man sat at the bow with a steering wheel. He tried to control where we went. The other man sat at the stern on top of the engine. He tried to control how fast we got there. Both men shared the duty of hitting the engine with wrenches and pipes whenever it conked out.
The boy had multiple responsibilities. His most important duty was lighting cigarettes for other crewmembers. His minor duties included shouting at Engine Man to slow down to avoid swamping pirogues or crashing into floating trees, and poling us out of the mud banks Wheel Man failed to miss. We later discovered that Pole Boy had some vital ad hoc emergency duties.
Soon we entered the vast expanse of Tonlé Sap lake creeping toward distant Battambang. Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. From the middle you can see no land. During the rainy season, its current flows northwest because it absorbs the overflow of the Mekong below. This was good news for us because it improved our speed a few knots.
About 150 years ago, the remarkable solo explorer Henri Mouhot, who “rediscovered” Angkor Wat, crossed Tonle Sap on a vessel probably no less seaworthy than ours. He recorded, “The entrance to the great lake of Cambodia is grand and beautiful. The river becomes wider and wider, until at last it is four or five miles in breadth; and then you enter the immense sheet of water called Tonle Sap, as large and full of motion as a sea…The waves glitter in the broad sunshine with a brilliancy which the eye can scarcely support.”
Well old Henri could sugarcoat a description, and maybe he was just accustomed to being wet after two Cambodian rainy seasons, but those “glittery waves” slopped over the sides of our little launch for more than an hour. By the time we left the lake and entered Sangker River, we were sodden and cold.
The good news about leaving the great lake and entering the river was that the water calmed and we could dry out and warm up. The bad news was that the current was now flowing against us. But the scenery soon distracted us from our deliberate pace.
First we saw fishing households. These floating accommodations, constructed of bamboo and rattan, support a tall triangular hoisting contraption that the fishing families use to raise a huge net from the river whenever they think fish might be in it. These self-contained live/work spaces line the river for miles. We saw one lucky family pull up a net with at least 50 silvery fish flapping in it. Further upstream, we saw one emerge completely empty.
The river is also a bird sanctuary. A pair of muscular eagles with beige and white plumage hovered low, then flashed their talons into the water to snatch fish that had somehow escaped the gauntlet of nets. A bird with an orange beak like a toucan’s and bright blue feathers perched on a half submerged tree. Flocks of small iridescent birds changed from gold to emerald to gold as they sped past.
Housing styles changed as we crept up river. Near the great lake, water-borne houses floating on log pontoons predominated. As the river narrowed, people lived on the flat shoreline in insubstantial, easy-to-construct bamboo sheds, as if they knew the floods would inevitably come and they would inevitably need to rebuild.
Further upstream, the riverbank was much higher, allowing farmers to build permanent wood frame houses atop concrete pylons. Some of the conscientious homeowners here even painted their houses. Smurf Blue was the most popular color.
Agricultural occupations also evolved as we ascended the river. At the river’s mouth, only fishing seemed possible because the shore was soft and inaccessible. At mid-river, farmers planted paddy fields right into the lapping edge of the water. Upriver, the narrower course carved high banks where farmers planted dry-land crops like maize, sugar cane and hundreds of acres of an eight-foot-tall, dark-green, bushy five-leafed vegetable that appeared, to my untrained eye, to be cannabis.
Seeing this abundance and clearly thinking the same thing, the German sitting next to me leaned over and shouted above the engine: “Ist enough for the lifetime!”
Diverse river traffic continuously passed us. Motorized barges pulled rows of canoes piled with bamboo and wood. Cargo launches carried plastic petrol containers and hardware supplies. Rough-cut pirogues paddled by; women squatting at the bow moved passengers and groceries.
After four hours travel, Wheel Man assured me that we were only two hours from Battambang. Apparently, in that calculation, he did not account for two engine breakdowns and a monsoon storm that would have materially raised the level of the Mississippi River.
The first engine failure coincided with a monsoon burst. We were dead stopped with Pole Boy holding us off the bank while Wheel Man and Engine Man took turns clobbering the engine with a steel pipe like they might a dog that had stolen their lunch.
During this episode in creative mechanics, the skies opened to such a savage rainstorm that I couldn’t be certain if we on the river or under it. But, throughout the storm, to my lasting admiration, Pole Boy held us clear of the bank.
Pole Boy was as defiant as Lieutenant Dan atop the “Jenny” cursing his Creator as the hurricane wiped out the rest of Alabama’s shrimp fleet in Forrest Gump. He was as obsessed as Captain Ahab lashed to the foremast as the white whale crushed the Pequod in Moby Dick. (Well, okay, maybe I was a little too close to the action to be objective). But if Pole Boy had failed, we would have had to chainsaw our boat out of that mud bank.
Eventually, though, as always happens in Southeast Asia, the rain suddenly stopped. Then, for no reason that can be discerned from mechanics or nature, the engine finally responded to the beatings and cranked up.
From there, we entered a narrow, twisting, dangerous-looking stretch of roiling brown water where the vegetation on both banks was so dense and so high that it blocked the light and obstructed all views to the land beyond. I imagined the scene in Apocalypse Now when the Indians attacked Martin Sheen’s patrol boat and speared the skipper. And I worried for Wheel Man.
We couldn’t have been making more than two knots against the current there. Broken plants, dead animals and other debris surged past us as the engine began to struggle again. And then, with a single fuel-scented puff of gray smoke, it just quit. In seconds, the current overcame our pitiful forward momentum and we were heading backwards fast.
Until then, I only had a passing admiration for Pole Boy’s tenacity against a raging deluge. I had seen nothing. Now, as Wheel Man rushed back to help Engine Man smash the engine into submission, Pole Boy sprang to the bow, bit down on the tow rope and leapt off our boat across five feet of river to a slippery bank three feet above the deck.
He somehow gained his footing, controlled the boat, and tied the rope to a tree. We jerked to a halt, my armchair toppled back, and I lost my last baguette to the sloshy bilge.
We clung precariously to the tree for nearly an hour while wizened grannies paddling hollow logs with broom handles passed us like we were standing still. (Which, thanks to the acrobatic heroics of Pole Boy, we were.)
Since I lived to record this account, you will know that the engine again cowered from its beating and restarted. That the river widened and calmed. And that our trusty boat limped up to the Battambang pier, at last completing our nine-hour “three hour luxury speed boat ride.”
When we tied up, I was amazed to be accosted by the same hotel touts we’d encountered at our departure dock so long ago. “How did you get here before us?” I asked one of them. “Easy, sir,” he said, “We took the speedboat.”